June 9, 2024

🍿 Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) was an unexpected delight with a tight story, smart humor, and subtle Spider-Verse animation influences. It’s Sony Picture’s world now, followed by DreamWorks Animation, leaving Disney/Pixar a distant, sad third.

June 8, 2024

📚 Finished reading: Toxic Exposure by Chadi Nabhan, in record time. The prose may have been clunky but the drama of the Monsanto Rondup trials was real and the book was a page-turner, so it took me less than 48 hours to zip through cover to cover.

The court transcripts make the story, especially when Chadi was cross-examined about the nuances of probability, causality and informed risk. If those topics sounds appealing, I recommend you listen to Chadi’s one-hour conversation with Nassim Taleb about the book. If only Taleb could have been there as an expert witness…

June 7, 2024

Polished excrement and diamonds in the rough

I think I figured out what bugged me about Netflix-produced live action shows: their gloss-to-effort mismatch.

Imagine a 2x2 with the horizontal axis showing effort required to make something (time spent developing the script, repeating takes, editing) and the vertical axis showing how glossy the output is (which is mostly a function on equipment quality and CGI). Here are the four quadrants, clockwise from top right:

  1. High effort, high gloss: the HBO quadrant or, if you are move into movies and like aliteration, the Kubrick quadrant — where show runners obsess over every detail and are sometimes even accused of mistreating employees. The quadrant where a man notorious for going behind schedule over budget builds a ship only to sink it — and win nearly dozen Academy Awards for it. Note, however, that many HBO shows are actually in the
  2. High effort, low gloss: the CGP Gray quadrant, where hundreds of hours of research are sublimated in talking stick figures. The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm would be here, as would some of the best movies coming out of Hollywood which have to make an additional effort not to be too glossy and feel “more authentic”, though there is a thin line between actual and high-gloss authenticity. Interestingly, CGP Gray himself is on YouTube, but most of YouTube is in the
  3. Low effort, low gloss: the YouTube quadrant, epitomized by its very first upload and now flourishing with DIY instructions, unboxing videos and attempts at ASMR. I suppose most if not all of TikTok, YouTube shorts and Instagram Reels (or are they Stories?) would also be in this, the quadrant for the rest of us. Note, however, that much of what we now think as “YouTuber content” falls instead in the
  4. Low effort, high gloss: the Netflix quadrant, also known as “we’ll fix it in post”. Expensive actors aren’t that expensive if you only do one take per shot and you don’t need to scout for locations if every scene is shot in front of a green screen, but hey it’s a Dolby Atmos DolbyVision Dolby Everything 4K HDR 120Hz wonderland which screams high-quality but feels fake. Much of highly lauded AppleTV+ content would also be here, Disney+ as well, Amazon Prime Video goes without saying. Billions of dollars spent on fake gloss that people easily sense, and even if they can’t put it in words they vote with their eyeballs which continue to be glued to the other 3 quadrants.

To be clear, there is effort spent on the gloss too — but that effort could in some cases be seen as polishing a turd. So another way to name the quadrants would be:

  1. Polished diamond
  2. Diamond in the rough
  3. Turd in the rough
  4. Polished turd

Only one of those doesn’t make sense, and it’s the one we are avoiding! “Turd” may be too harsh — I view this very blog as having both its feet planted firmly in quadrant 3, but I hope you get the idea. Terminology aside, it’s a useful mental model to have.

June 6, 2024

📚 Finished reading: Writing to Learn by William Zinsser, which was less an instruction manual and more of an overview of the best of non-fiction from the mid 1800s until the 1980s. Interestingly, the person who first comes to my mind as the proponent of the writing-is-thinking school, Richard Feynman, got a negative mention for his irreverent memoir. So it goes…

June 5, 2024

NotebookLM got an upgrade, and now I want DEVONthink AI even more

Google’s NotebookLM now supports asking questions about more than 10 sources and is apparently making lifelogging great again. “Lifelogging” evokes misguided attempts of Mark Cuban to measure everything and the narcissistic tendencies of Stephe Wolfram to write about me me me; but then, isn’t my DEVONthink database also a life-log of sorts and wouldn’t it be great to be able to ask plain questions about the documents inside? Of course it would, and the use case is so obvious I wrote about it already.

Considering the types of documents that are there — tax returns, birth certificates and such — uploading them to a hive mind is out of the question, but Apple and Microsoft should unquestionably work on an on-device solution. Whichever Mac — laptop or desktop, I don’t care — enables this will be the one to replace my current M1 Air which is entering its fourth year soon but still going strong.

So this is the (near? let’s hope so) future I imagine: asking when the kids' last doctor’s appointment was and having the LLM confirm it through both the calendar and a saved note. Let’s say I need this information to fill out a form at a different doctor’s office, and it also asks me about their height and weight. Well, even if we don’t obsessively check our children’s biometrics and log them in a database, they are still recorded in those school forms and would be available to LLM bots.

This is, of course, a privacy nightmare. Even Apple has privacy slip-ups, and even if the data itself is kept on a personal device which also does the processing, who’s to say that the audio won’t be sent somewhere and kept on recorded for quality control? It seems like a whole new frontier has opened up where 19th century laws contorted to fit the 20th may not easily apply, but I’ll stop there before I get too political.

There may still be a use for NotebookLM, though. With the source document restriction lifted, I can at least upload publicly available documents like journal articles, book chapters and lecture slides that I also keep in DEVONthink, grouped by topic so that they are easily transposable into NotebookLM’s “notebooks”. And I will report more, as soon as there are any publicly shareable use cases to report.

(↬Dave Winer)

June 4, 2024

Notes on election day

It is the first Tuesday in June and DCPS schools are closed for primary elections.

  1. Weekday elections are disruptive and if the ones in November have to be maintained out of respect for history why double the misery during the primaries? At the very least move them to after the school is out anyway.
  2. It is the first time non-citizens can vote in local DC elections and the uproar is in line with my expectations.
  3. As a non-citizen myself I did in fact register to vote. Alas, not registering myself as a Democrat means I won’t make an iota of difference in voting out of office the ding-dongs who thought giving non-citizens a vote was a good idea.
  4. If the ding-dongs wanted true democracy in this deep blue city-state, why not go for open primaries?
  5. This is the only overtly political post I will make until November.

June 3, 2024

Why build such an eminently sittable window then forbid sitting on it? I’d throw a few cushions and pillows on it, not a crumpled up paper and a sad plaque.

A window offers a view of an outside landscape with trees, buildings, and a partly cloudy sky, while a sign on the windowsill warns "PLEASE DO NOT SIT IN WINDOW."

June 2, 2024

Netflix has just scooped up two of the very best things I recently saw:

They mostly make chum, but between licensed excellence like the above and a few gems of their own a subscription is still worth it.

June 1, 2024

Beautiful day at DC Truck Touch today, in the shadow of the dilapidated RFK Stadium. I was transported back to Serbia for a second there.

Clear blue sky above, green awning of DC Parks & Rec department below, a run-down, rusted brutalist arena in the middle.

May 31, 2024

Condemnation games

From Albert Wenger on his blog Continuations: I am quoting almost half of his fairly short blog post here but you should still go see it in context, click on the links and check out the rest of the blog while you’re at it.

Second, the world is continuing to descend back into tribalism. And it has been exhausting trying to maintain a high rung approach to topics amid an onslaught of low rung bullshit. Whether it is Israel-Gaza, the Climate Crisis or Artificial Intelligence, the online dialog is dominated by the loudest voices. Words have been rendered devoid of meaning and reduced to pledges of allegiance to a tribe. I start reading what people are saying and often wind up feeling isolated and exhausted. I don’t belong to any of the tribes nor would I want to. But the effort required to maintain internally consistent and intellectually honest positions in such an environment is daunting. And it often seems futile.

Tangential to this is a trend, particularly regarding the Capitalized Content above but also about News of the Day on any particular day, is an expectation to condemn of the “if you are not saying something publicly, you are complicit” variety. Show your colors. Plant your flag. Choose your hill or whatnot. To which I can only say: why?

A few years ago I have somehow gotten onto a list of potential democratic donor and am routinely solicited for money, even though as a non-US citizen I can’t vote or donate to a political party. It gave me a window into what declared American democrats are exposed to, and I assume republicans get the same raw deal: a barrage of emails in ALL CAPS declaring whatever is happening on any given day to be The Most Consequential Event of Our Lives, click this link to donate. I can only imagine that, slowly at first and then as a torrent, that language drips drips drips into people’s minds until it’s part of the background mental processing.

So with such a loud background it is no wonder that people feel like they need to yell to get heard, and who cares about whatever small project you’re working on in your provincial unimportant back yard when there is Important Stuff Happening over here. Being social and wanting to get heard, we start yelling out things which we believe people we would want to like us would want to hear. And if you think that sentence is confusing, well, yes it is, but not any more confusing than the predicament we’re in.

Because those things actually are important, and it’s good to have a dialogue about them, around the dinner table, at the water cooler, at the game, with people we know and care about in contexts other than internet screaming matches that, mold-like, spread over constructive online dialogue until it’s rotten to its core. So for this blog and the general and generally wonderful micro.blog community, I will have thoughts on science, coffee, books, an occasional photo, and come October maybe even some basketball. Not as consequential to the world perhaps, but consequential to me.

(↬Thought Shrapnel)